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After poor air quality threatens Madras-Sisters game, Daniel Barendse finds creative solution

ANDY DIECKHOFF/MADRAS PIONEER - Senior Ethan Graeme looks out from the Madras Performing Arts Center, where the team gathers before home games, on Thursday night. Graeme and the rest of the Buffs would have to wait another 24 hours to play.Madras came away with a 16-7 win over Sisters on Friday, but the game came very close to not happening. On Thursday night, when the teams were originally scheduled to play, the game was canceled due to poor air quality.

Due to the ongoing wildfires raging through central and southern Oregon, Jefferson County has been under an air quality advisory for much of the month so far. It is one of 15 counties in the state holding its breath as it waits for the smoke to clear. Thankfully, a bit of rain and wind helped to clear things up on Friday, at least in central Oregon.

While the smoke may be going away soon, it made its mark on the first two weeks of September — especially in prep sports. Of course, COVID is still doing its part to disrupt normalcy. At least eight high school games around the state were canceled last week due to teams in quarantine. This new issue, however, is a much more difficult one to navigate. Individuals can choose to take precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, even if those measures aren't guaranteed to work.

What actions can a person take to change the weather? What can soccer teams do to stop the forests from burning? How can a defensive coordinator gameplan for this kind of air attack?

Because of these air quality issues, and because of an increased emphasis on player healthy and safety, the OSAA set up thresholds for outdoor sports competitions. If the air quality index (AQI) reading is below 100 at gametime, play ball. If it's over 100, sorry folks — no game today.

That is exactly what happened to Madras last Thursday.

The football game between Madras and Sisters was originally planned as a road trip for the White Buffalos; however, when Sisters registered an AQI over 150 on Thursday morning, officials quickly worked to relocate the game to Madras. Unfortunately for everyone who made the trip, the football teams simply couldn't outrun the smoke.

ANDY DIECKHOFF/MADRAS PIONEER - Madras High School athletic director Daniel Barendse, right, spent Thursday evening refreshing his phone for AQI updates alongside the head football coach and athletic director from Sisters High School.It was an interesting scene in the concourse outside the football field. Barendse and Sisters HS athletic director Gary Thorson stood apart from the crowd, both glued to their phones as they awaited a fresh update for the Madras AQI reading. Per OSAA recommendations, they used the website as the agreed-upon official data source.

Around 6 p.m. on Thursday, the AQI reading spiked to 168 after spending most of the day in the sub-100 range. At 6:30 p.m., a member of the MHS athletic staff got on the public address system and announced a 15-minute delay to the 7 p.m. kickoff. A new reading was set to come around the top of the hour, so there was still a chance that the game could be played.

"There was just a weird little dip-in over the mountains," said MHS athletic director Daniel Barendse, pointing westward to the hazy skies rolling in past M Hill. "It was manageable throughout the day but got worse just before kickoff."

During the wait, players and coaches from both teams twiddled their thumbs in anticipation. The Buffs stood in the Madras Performing Arts Center wearing full pads, ready to run through the tunnel as soon as they got the all-clear. The concession stands were open and selling snacks to spectators. The cheerleading team got in their last few practice reps on the track. There was still hope, however dwindling it may have been.

When the next update came, it brought with it the confirmation of bad news: the AQI had risen, not fallen, over the last hour. It now sat at 176, and by that time, it was too late to wait any longer. A decision had to be made, so Barendse and Thorson made the hard call to postpone the game.

According to Barendse, the game would be rescheduled if possible, but he also noted that the contest was only happening on a Thursday because no officials were available to work another Friday game in central Oregon. The logistical issues made it unclear whether the game would be played at all.

The next morning, Barendse received a phone call that changed everything. It was Burns High School, and they were looking to solve their own logistical puzzle. The situation provided Barendse with a new opportunity.

"I got creative," Barendse said. "Burns was calling to try to move their game with Klamath Union (on Friday) to Madras. I said that we could host if it could be a double-header. It was up to the officials whether or not they were willing to do a double-header."

ANDY DIECKHOFF/MADRAS PIONEER - The Madras-Sisters game was able to go forward on Friday, but only because the same officiating crew agreed to work a doubleheader, which also included a matchup between Burns and Klamath Union.Fortunately, the officials were willing to work both games, and suddenly, a plan was in place. Burns and Klamath Union would meet in Madras for a 5 p.m. game, with the Madras-Sisters contest taking place afterward at 7:30 p.m. There was only one snag: the AQI needed to cooperate.

As rain pelted down on Madras all throughout Friday morning, the air finally cleared up. While the air quality index did rise a bit during the afternoon, some worries started to creep in — especially as Burns and Klamath Union were already on the road.

"Kind of stuck again at this point," said Barendse via text in response to a question about the rising AQI, noting that there was not much anyone could do but wait and keep checking the readings.

Thankfully, the AQI levels remained under 100, meaning the games could go on. Though it was strange to see Burns being treated as the home team on Madras' field, it was football. After Burns beat KUHS 35-14, there was still some question about whether the MHS game would still go forward. Luckily for Madras, the levels were still acceptable for playing, according to Barendse.

"We're good to go, man," a relieved Barendse said as he made his way around the concourse in one of the school's equipment carts just before Madras' win over Sisters.

"We made it happen."

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